THE House on Wednesday approved without cuts the P2.606-trillion national budget on third and final reading, including P4.7 billion in errata and special provisions that would allow President Benigno Aquino III to impound funds and declare these as savings by mid-year, and use them for other projects.
The final vote count was 198-18 without abstentions, but opposition lawmakers protested the huge allocations for local government units under Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel Roxas II, the presumptive standard bearer of the ruling Liberal Party.
Pointing to some P423 billion allocated for Assistance to Local Government Units, the lawmakers declared that the national spending plan for 2015 was an election budget.
At the plenary Wednesday, the House leadership could not explain fully as to where the P423 billion was taken from, House Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said.
To end the debate, the majority moved to vote on the budget.
“The House small panel of the mother committee House committee on appropriations may have rejected the errata-proposed allocations but these were as good as restored because of the redefinition of savings,” said ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio.
Tinio said special provisions were inserted in the General Appropriations Act that would allow the President to “reprioritize” projects mid-year.
The previous GAAs allowed the President to impound the budgets only by year-end when projects had been implemented and completed.
Panel chairman Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab said the entire errata that contained several amendments only totaled P4.7 billion, and that any claim otherwise was “completely erroneous and completely false.”
But Tinio said this did not matter because the President now had the power to divert funds from approved projects by the middle of the year.
“While the panel, led by LP officials, rejected the deduction [of P13.4 billion from the pension and gratuity fund], we are worried that this would be as good as restored if the President uses his powers granted by the redefinition of savings,” Tinio said.
Ungab confirmed that one item in the errata submitted by the Budget Department was the reduction in the pension and gratuity fund by P13.4 billion, but this was not approved.
Earlier, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad branded as “exaggerated” the Makabayan bloc’s claim that the errata would affect thousands of pensioners but did not say how much exactly was taken out from the pension fund.
Abad said the DBM made sure no pensioner or retiree will be adversely affected.
Ungab said it remains uncertain whether the appropriated amount for the pension fund will be fully used next year, since there was no list of retirees.
But Garbriela Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan disputed the claims of Abad and Ungab.
“It does not follow that if DBM has no list of 2015 retirees, nobody will retire in 2015. The bureaucracy is the biggest employer in the country. How lame their excuses are. Do they take us as fools? Look a the contradictory statements: ‘nobody will be adversely affected but we have no list.’ Hello?” she said.
Tinio said Ungab’s admission confirmed that the errata was padded by at least P13.4 billion, contrary to Abad’s claims.
Tinio said the DBM has bloated the budget for pension and gratuity by P13.4 billion so they knew there was a huge budget that could be diverted to Palace-preferred projects.
“In the errata submitted by the DBM, almost all of the agencies increased their budgets when compared with the National Expenditure Program while a total of P13.4 billion was deducted from the pension and gratuity fund,” Colmenares had said.
“We should subject these changes to discussion and approval of the whole House instead of merely approving it en toto on third reading,” he added.
“Why have they taken so much from the pensions? How many pensioners would suffer from this? It is as if the Aquino government has no concern for senior citizens and government workers,” he added.
Ungab said the small panel was careful in approving or disapproving amendments and realignments.
Aside from the pension and gratuity fund reduction, the panel also rejected the P8 billion allocation for the Bangsamoro contingent fund.
“The small committee did not recommend the increase of P8 billion for contingent fund precisely because it was never discussed and the Bangsamoro Basic Law law not yet passed,” Ungab said.
He said the House could not appropriate funds for something that is not there yet since the Bangsamoro Basic Law that will create the Bangsamoro political entity has yet to be approved by the chamber.
“Among the significant changes are the amounts allocated to be used for APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) - P3.28 billion, Bureau of Customs- P998.8 million, Department of Tourism P296.9 million, Department of Trade and Industry - P93.7 million, Commission on Human Rights -P34 million, Commission on Elections - P3 million, Department of Enviroment and Natural Resources - P53.5 million, Partido State University -P5 million and Grassroots Participatory Budgeting Program -P1.790 million,” Ungab said.
“We made sure that the amendments we approved were within the budget submitted and were actually tackled not only during committee but also during plenary as well,” he said.
Colmenares, Tinio, Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza, Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz and others opposed the approval of the budget, saying the errata were illegal because they did not go through the committee and plenary delierations.
Colmenares said the 2015 national budget was “not a budget for the people,” adding that the more than P4 billion in lump sum funds included in the budget legalizes the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The following are the various departments and their respective allocations, Department of Education, P365 billion; Department of Public Works and Highways, P300.5 billion; Department of
National Defense, P144 billion; Department of the Interior and Local Government, P141.4 billion; Department of Social Welfare and Development, P109 billion; Department of Health, P102.2 billion; Department of Agriculture, P88.8 billion; Department of Transportation and Communication, P59.5 billion; Department of Environment and Natural Resources, P21.3 billion, and the judiciary led by the Supreme Court, P20.3 billion.
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